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Silicon Valley: the latest stage for political grandstanding

Do politicians know what they’re talking about when it comes to tech?

October 24, 2019

6:20 PM

24 October 2019

6:20 PM

Silicon Valley can’t catch a break politically these days — from either party.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled extensively by members of Congress this week in a hearing ostensibly about the company’s now-on-shaky-ground Libra cryptocurrency that turned into a broader scrutiny of its ethics and business practices. Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s questioning, predictably, went viral, with even a remix that replaces Zuckerberg with Cousin Greg from HBO’s Succession.

But it’s not just Democrats — such as presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who’s made Zuckerberg a campaign trail bogeyman — assailing venture-backed billionaires these days. Republicans want a piece of the action, too. ‘Adam Neumann ruined WeWork, yet walks away with $1.7 BILLION, while thousands of employees get laid off,’ tweeted Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, Wednesday, referring to the swift downfall of the company that was supposed to be on the cusp of going public. ‘Neumann is a fraud & a good example of why some people support a socialist like @BernieSanders. He ought to be sued & investigated.’

Cotton’s logic is opportunistic, to say the least. Golden parachutes and CEOs screwing over employees are nothing new in the business world. But Neumann, who comes across as an over-the-top caricature of a guy who inhaled too much LSD-laced sand at Burning Man, has made headlines for it, and apparently that’s boosting Cotton’s political rivals. If Cotton were genuinely concerned about white-collar bad behavior, you’d think he’d have spoken up rather sooner.

In short, politicians of all persuasions have realized that assailing big tech companies is good for their own images — and they’re only going to do it more. After all, it’s working. Take Republican Josh Hawley, one of the most junior members of the Senate, who swiftly built a national profile by arguing Facebook is biased against conservative voices and suggesting social media sites be subject to a partisan neutrality audit (something that made many members of his own party cringe).

There’s a history of making ‘tough on tech’ a political brand. When he served as attorney general of Connecticut a decade ago, now-senator Richard Blumenthal made national news going after onetime social networking leader MySpace, alleging it wasn’t doing enough to keep sex offenders off its user rolls. Blumenthal, unsurprisingly, has joined forces with Hawley. (Another of the attorneys general who led the crusade against MySpace, Roy Cooper, is now governor of North Carolina.)

Criticizing huge corporations has always been a winning vote-getting strategy. But with big tech companies, politicians have an added advantage — Facebook, with a website that over half the US population uses, often on a daily basis, is much more personal and tangible a brand than, say, a hedge fund or defense contractor. That makes it particularly ripe for opportunistic grandstanding.

But this should concern voters. It’s worth questioning whether politicians are sincere or simply offering rhetorical red meat to their most loyal followings (Diamond and Silk testifying before Congress, anyone?). And we should be wonder if they actually have any clue what they’re talking about. Tech literacy among politicians is woefully low, perhaps because tech policy has never been something voters have prioritized in elections. While the ‘techlash’ and Silicon Valley missteps dominate headlines these days, there’s no question companies such as Facebook, Apple and Google have made life better for Americans (and others) in many ways. To have their future dictated by politicians who don’t know much about them, especially given low voter engagement, will certainly have some unintended consequences.

And it’s not just about whether Facebook fact-checks political ads. There are very real tech policy issues that relate directly to matters of national security. This week, senators from both parties (yes, Tom Cotton was one of them) wrote to the acting director of national intelligence calling for an investigation into TikTok, a video app that’s wildly popular among teenagers but whose Chinese ownership could make it subject to demands from the country’s authoritarian government. This is not a bad thing at all. Much of the breathless media coverage of TikTok hasn’t made mention of its ownership, and the growing US-China rivalry in tech innovation merits more attention from Capitol Hill.

Zuckerberg’s grilling went a little better than that of Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who had to explain to Rep. Steve King last year that his company doesn’t make the iPhone. But we still can’t be confident that politicians know what they’re talking about. Right now, many political pronouncements on tech seem more like ploys for attention than smart policy.

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